Parents wonder whether Madison’s school lunches are healthy for kids

Mary Ellen Gabriel:

The “hot lunch” line snakes out the door of the multipurpose room at Franklin Elementary School. Kids dressed in snow boots and parkas file past a table where a staff member is handing out plastic-wrapped containers of hot dogs and fries, canned peaches and a cookie. Forget trays or plates. The kids clutch the packages in both hands and, after a student helper plunks a carton of milk on top, hug the whole load to their chests, trying not to drop mittens and hats. They scurry into the gym and squeeze into a spot at one of the crowded lunch tables, where the “cold lunch” kids are chowing down with a 10-minute head start. Twelve minutes left before the bell rings. Better eat fast.
Is the Madison Metropolitan School District’s school lunch program unhealthy for kids?
It depends who you ask. On one side is a well-trained food service department that manages to feed 19,000 kids under a bevy of guidelines on a slim budget. On the other is a growing number of parents and community advocates armed with research about the shortcomings of mass-produced food and race-to-the-finish mealtimes.
“We’re perpetuating a fast-food mentality,” said Pat Mulvey, a personal chef and the parent of a second-grader and a kindergartner at Franklin. “We can do better.”
Mulvey has joined a small group of parents at south side Franklin and affiliated Randall Elementary calling for changes to the school lunch program. Among their concerns: a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, high fat and salt content in items perceived as “processed” or “junk food,” little nutritional information on the Web site, too much plastic, too much waste and too little time to eat.
This isn’t the first time parents in the district have raised concerns about school lunch. For the past decade, parents, educators and healthy food advocates in the Madison area have asked the School Board, principals and the district’s food service to serve more fresh foods and make lunch longer than 25 minutes.

This issue has come up a number of times over the years.

6 thoughts on “Parents wonder whether Madison’s school lunches are healthy for kids”

  1. Not only has this issue festered for over a decade, it has taken valuable time away from more important issues. If you don’t like what they serve, send your own food for your own child. If lunch is taking too long, send your own food so your child doesn’t have to stand in line- and remind your child that lunch isn’t a social hour, they get 15 minutes to eat. It’s good practice for the real world. If you can’t afford to send your own food with your child, dump the cable TV and/or the DSL service and use that cash to send your own food. If you still fall below that threshold, then your child had better eat fast, because the MMSD isn’t adding time to the school day just for lunch. That last bit has some sarcasm attached because let’s face it, those who have yelled loudest about this issue over the past decade do not fall into the last category of families for whom free hot lunch is a gov’t subsidy.

  2. I just can’t help thinking that there has to be a better way. Kids who can afford to pay for hot lunch would rather bring their own, cutting an important revenue stream. Kids, who receive free lunches, as determined by income, not spending habits, are served unappealing food. One of the problems with the food service is that they do not employ a dietician. The food service supervisor probably does the best he can but he is only following nutritional guidelines.
    It’s easy to say like it or lump it but that doesn’t solve the problem of all the wasted food and money.

  3. When my kids were in MMSD they had Pizza Hut once a month but otherwise insisted on packing from home, partly for reasons of not wasting time in line, but mostly because they thought the school meals were awful. I don’t know that there is a good solution. I’ve chaperoned on school field trips to food service. The food seemed fairly appetizing to a typical American kid’s palate there as it is first prepared. Although I don’t know that its nutritional content was so great, which is the particular lunch problem addressed by the original article. But from my observations in the school lunchroom, sitting warm for hours in plastic renders the food rather less appealing.
    In any case, since most schools are not equipped with individual kitchens or manpower in which to cook and serve food while fresh, the only way to keep the food in good condition is to serve cold ‘hot lunch’ like sub sandwiches and applesauce. Both of my children have sub sandwich day at school, one of them once a week and the other once a month. It’s very popular with the kids, even though they switched to whole wheat bread.
    Hot lunches and cold lunches alike get tossed in the trash. Many kids are not taught or at least have not internalized that wasting food is wasteful of money and resources. Lunch duty is truly unpleasant because of watching all this waste. Even when the kids basically love their lunch, this is the case. Half the pizza is tossed because kids don’t want the crust.

  4. David, are you serious? Lunch is a social hour — and an important time to “blow off steam” for energy-filled kids who have been in class for four hours. And yes, the parents of kids with free or reduced lunch haven’t been yelling about that issue — could it be because they are probably working two minimum-wage jobs and don’t have time to raise a fuss? Or maybe they (gasp!) don’t have money for the internet access that would allow them on this site. There’s a huge nutritional gap in this country between rich and poor – processed foods are cheaper, but they’re also much less healthy. In an age of spiraling health care costs, couldn’t there possibly be some compelling public interest in making sure that all of our students have access to healthy food, beyond the simple moral concern?

  5. Dead serious, to a point. There’s a system in place that doles out “x” amount of time for lunch. That’s not going to change, we’ve been through this countless times before. So kids (who definitely need to blow off energy) have to learn how to manage the lunch time. It’s not to hard for them to do. I’ve spent countless hours in elementary and middle school lunch rooms over the years and the vast majority of kids get it done. It’s the parents who groan about the time constraints. Public schools can’t fix all of society’s ills, and the gap between rich and poor when it comes to nutrition is a case in point. But I’ve also seen plenty of the “haves” eating junk food and plenty of the “have nots” eating food from Wisconsin Homegrown’s initiatives. I have no doubt that most of MMSD’s food sucks in the taste dept…but I don’t think it’s necessarily “unhealthy”, just unpalatable;)
    Besides, didn’t we have some grand task force that decided to purge the MMSD of unhealthy snacks, sodas, candies, etc.?
    As I said from the outset, large amounts of time have been spent on this issue already by the district, parents, MTI (to carve out lunch time hours etc.). It is what it is: settled.

  6. Unfortunately, not only at MMSD and other school systems but what seems to be general societal character, time spent is not correlated with quality output and decision making.
    When I visited the snack store at West after the Board decision to implement unhealthy snacks, I reviewed the empty shelves to discover what was considered “healthy” snacks. A package labeled “Fruit Snacks” and “nutritional” (Welch’s?) showed fructose from real fruit as the first ingredient. They also had fruit juice drinks. Neither are healthy and both have the same nutritional quality as a can of cola.
    The issue then and now is the disconnect between our perceived goal of education and level of intelligence and education we model to our children.

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